Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ah, Brevity!

Ross Thomas is rightly celebrated for many reasons, foremost among them the opening lines of his books, but he really knows how to end Chaper One, too.

This from his final novel, Ah, Treachery:

“A wealthy aged person of sixty-two years lies dying in Los Angeles. Needs bright aggressive go-getter to help solve one final problem. You interested?”

“What’s the problem?”

“I don’t know, but it pays one thousand a week and found.”

“How many weeks?”

“Till death do you part, I suppose,” the Greek said.

Friday, July 20, 2007

I Think Hitchcock Would Call It Cheating

It happens ever more frequently:

The opening chapters of the book – a page-turner, something grabbed off the rack at the supermarket – are written in first person.

This is a plot-driven story, a paperback with crosshairs on the cover, not a character study, so the first-person voice at best lends some character to the proceedings, or at least inserts the reader more readily into the role of the protagonist, as the shadowy forces that plan to disrupt his existence begin to gather.

By now, several score of pages have (hopefully) flown by, and if the author’s done his or her work, you’re at one with the narrator, because a) the narrator is a genuinely-engaging character, b) their predicament is so ingenious that you deem it worth your time to find out how any old straw man would fare, c) some combination of a and b; or even, if you have a stronger stomach than I do, the dread d) the author has all but sent a masseuse to your home in their effort to impress upon you their narrator’s essential goodness and likeability.

So the cat-and-mouse game is on. We have our mouse, we are rooting for the mouse, and the cat is still invisible.

Until the next chapter begins…in third person.

Here comes the cat. And he’s thrown the whole book out of joint.

Because why, then, do the “mouse” chapters need to be in first person?

The only reason, at this point, as far as I can tell, is d).

I think most authors accused of this would say something about using a larger palette.

I can agree that there’s something claustrophobic about first-person, but I would counter that claustrophobia is not a bad thing in a thriller; and that a third-person narrative throughout would be an omniscient narrator, and there’s no larger palette than omniscience.

Which leads back to d).

I think the Web is partly to blame for d). Go to Amazon and look up a thriller of the past ten years, then look at the lowest-starred customer reviews, and it's almost certain the customer "didn't like" or "didn't care" about the characters.

Properly chastened, the author who couldn't resist instant feedback returned to the keyboard and gifted their protagonist with heaps of caring: a dying mother or a selfless profession or - yes yes, a first-person narrative...for two-thirds of the book. Whenever the cat is not center stage.

Here's the thing: I think Hitchcock would call any of these gambits cheating.

That orderly contract between the writer and the reader that the postmodernists wanted thrown away for all time, the thriller still cries out for.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Book Release Party for Detroit Noir

Sat., November 10, 1pm

Aunt Agatha's Mystery, Detection & True Crime Books
213 S. Fourth Ave.Ann Arbor, MI

Book release party featuring editors E.J. Olsen and John C. Hocking, with various contributors

If you've been to Aunt Agatha's before, you don't really need an excuse to drop in, but here you go.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry’s titles have become, to put it kindly, less distinctive over the years – compare the latest, Silence, and the recent Nightlife and Pursuit to Metzger’s Dog or The Face-changers – but the books keep getting better and better. And they were awfully good to begin with.

Is there a better pure thriller writer working today? Perry can wring more suspense out of a pre-dawn taxi ride to the airport than most thriller writers could manage with a serial killer loosed on the Vatican with a suitcase nuke on Easter Sunday.

Ever since reading Big Fish back in the early eighties, I’ve considered his books to be like smarter, leaner, domestic versions of the type of tale the Ludlums and Forsythes were slinging, and thought that, in a just world, he would have the kind of career the reading public and Hollywood granted (say) John Grisham instead.

For a time, I thought Perry agreed with me – leaving behind the stand-alones for a series character, a sure sign that a writer is looking to relax a bit, find a formula people like, coast for a while. Right?

Not Perry. The Jane Whitefield books are pretty much the only series I’ve read without a sense of diminishing returns. And he quit Jane after five books, to return to the stand-alone.

Maybe the time is ripe for Perry to become an overnight sensation – the blockbusterish titles are in place, the paperback of Nightlife is showing up in the supermarket racks. I’d love to see some capable creative team, inspired by the Bourne franchise, turn the Jane Whitefield books into movies.

Meanwhile, Silence has been out for a couple weeks now, and I haven’t picked it up yet. The suspense is nearly killing me, but I’m going to wait just a little while longer.